Pilates has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world, and with good reason. There are so many science-backed benefits to doing mat and reformer pilates, from improving metabolic health to reducing back pain and increasing flexibility.
It’s great for working those deep abs and tiny muscles that don’t usually get used (read: side glutes). In fact, few exercises hit the core quite like hundreds or swimmers. And if they help to make our core muscles stronger, does that have any impact on digestion and gut health?
We know, for example, that yoga has specific poses aimed at relieving bloating, such as pawanmuktasana (or ‘trapped wind pose’), and if you type ‘yoga for gut health’ into YouTube, you’ll find this 18-minute flow from Yoga with Adriene that aims to aide digestion.
I’ve done Adriene’s gut flow plenty of times when I’ve been a bit bloated or been dealing with acid reflux and it’s super effective. But if you’re looking for a more intense pilates-style burn, can that have a similar – or even more profound – effect on our gut symptoms?
Can pilates help to improve gut health?
Pilates helps the intestine to contract
“Any movement and exercise can potentially help with digestion,” nutritionist Jo Travers tells Stylist. “This is because it stimulates the smooth muscle in the intestine to contract, which then helps move food through the digestive system.” Travers, who works with Love Your Gut Week, an annual digestive health awareness campaign, stresses that good gut health can be achieved via simple, everyday steps – “whether that’s going for a walk, running a gentle jog or going to a pilates class”.
“The important thing is to remember to vary your exercise, include it into your everyday routines where possible and aim for 30 minutes, five times a week.”
Poor gut health can be caused by stress (and pilates can be stress-relieving)
“Digestive issues are often related to stress,” explains Paola Langella, pilates instructor, nutrition health coach and founder of Shapes Studio. “To lower the stress level, we need to incorporate relaxing mind and body activities that help to lower the cortisol level and activate our rest and digestive (aka the parasympathetic nervous) system.”
In pilates, breathing is one of the core principles and it’s this that Langella believes can play such a vital role in digestive health: “The vagus nerve (the longest nerve in our body) connects the brain to the intestine, and one way to strengthen it is through breathing. All techniques that involve breathing can help to strengthen this nerve, whether it’s pilates, yoga or tai chi.
Pilates makes muscles and organs stronger
Our muscles, Langella says, attach to our organs, meaning that when we actively contract and lengthen the muscles, the organs are better able to expel waste products and unwanted toxins.
In pilates, the spine also moves in different positions: rotation, flexion, extension and side flexion. According to Langella: “All these dynamic and functional movements promote better blood circulation in the body, which leads to less inflammation and therefore a better functioning of the digestive system.”
Squeezing the core muscles can help with digestion
Travers says: “Drawing in and releasing the abdominal muscles while doing pilates (through the twisting exercises, inversions and abdominal work) is good for stimulating the muscle contractions in your gut – therefore once again, helping with overall digestion.” And while you do all of those things in yoga, it’s fair to say that pilates is slightly more active when it comes to squeezing and contracting those core muscles.
Pilates for bloating and constipation: can it help soothe symptoms?
What about if you’re struggling with gut symptoms like bloating or constipation? Travers says she “absolutely” recommends giving pilates a go in those circumstances. “You can work to your body’s own pace and flexibility, which is great. In addition, the focus on breathing is also valuable because it can reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause dysregulation of the communication pathways between the gut and the brain (known as the gut-brain axis).
“This can mean changes to blood flow and secretions in the gut, which may create better conditions for pathological bacteria and inhibit the growth of some helpful bacteria. It can also affect the movement of food through the gut and result in either constipation or diarrhoea.”
And the great thing is, Langella says, that pilates is “safe for every body type” and the benefits are quick to show. “The core is the powerhouse in pilates; every single exercise starts from a deep connection with the core muscles (the transverses abdominals that are activated with diaphragmatic breathing).
“Just 10 minutes a day will not only work your core, but can help to relieve stress, lengthen muscles and reduce bloating. Every time I do pilates, I feel lighter, stronger and more relaxed.”
What other exercises and habits are good for gut health?
Pilates isn’t the only form of exercise that can help ease digestive symptoms. As Travers stresses: “Any movement is good movement when it comes to gut health.” Best of all, it doesn’t have to be intense or vigorous exercise – it simply means not sitting still.
So long as our muscles are moving, we’re aiding digestion. And while few of us are up for running 10k every morning, a 30-minute walk every day is just as good for encouraging those gut muscles along.
“It’s also important that you vary your exercise,” Travers explains. “This will help keep enthusiasm for exercise, so you’re more likely to stick to it. Include flexibility exercises like yoga and pilates, aerobic activity like walking and swimming, and anaerobic exercises like weight-bearing exercises. Varying it up will keep you motivated, which ultimately will help aid overall good gut health.”
Two gut health habits we should adopt (if possible)
Of course, there’s more to good gut health than exercise – although movement is incredibly important. Travers says that the two key pieces of nutritional advice for good gut health are:
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
- Eat 30 plants a week
“A varied gut microbiota is associated with better health4 and to keep the bacteria thriving, you need to feed them well. A study found that people who eat 30 or more different plant foods each week are likely to have a much more varied gut microbiota than those who eat 10 or less.”
She recommends switching to wholegrain pasta and rice, adding an extra portion of veg to every plate and snacking on things like nuts and seeds.